What Makes a $1 and a $12 Chocolate Bar Different, Anyway?
Use this intro roadmap as a way to find the best kind of chocolate for you.
You can find a chocolate bar for a dollar. You can also find chocolate bars for $5, $8, and $12. Amazingly, you can find ultra-high-end chocolates for even more—as in more than you'd pay for a bottle of wine or a ribeye steak. What makes these different? And are the gaps so great that pricier bars are worth the investment?
The answer: It depends.
Some bars taste like ho-hum chocolate. Others might astonish you, tasting deeply of chocolate but also of blueberries and earth, making a $1 bar taste like wax. How is that possible? It begins with the two different groups of chocolate makers.
How Ingredients Determine Quality
The two groups are big-name companies operating on a large scale and much smaller craft artisans. The one key divider between these two groups: The ingredients they use.
Craft artisans take a purist approach. Many use nothing but cocoa, cocoa butter, and sugar. Others might add a little vanilla. What artisans refrain from doing is calling on emulsifiers and loads of sugar, tactics common in the making of cheaper, industrial-scale bars. Large producers make chocolate using more sugar. This chocolate is also more uniform from batch to batch to ensure (typically global) consistency.
Blending cheap beans from many cocoa-producing regions helps them reach uniformity. This strategy runs counter to the approach used on the craft level. Though you'll find chocolate blends made by thoughtful chocolate artisans, these blends are more thoughtfully crafted. More likely, though, you'll find small chocolate makers doing single-origin and single-estate bars, crafted from cocoa beans sourced from just one country, or just one grower. (Chocolate is like wine in this way.)
Essentially, craft chocolate artisans approach ingredients to accent the tiny differences that you see in cocoa from place to place, while industrial chocolate makers level them.
Growing Cocoa Beans
The chocolate making process is long. First, warm-country farms grow cocoa, or big gnarled pods that look like flat, colorful footballs. Cocoa beans grow inside. Farmers harvest, ferment, and dry them before shipping them to chocolate makers. Because the process involves not only growing but additional steps, cocoa is far more intricate than fruits or vegetables that are ready right off the vine, like tomato.
Many small artisans who work with single farms get a deep window into the early process. Many even visit farms and become intimately aware of how farmers are fermenting and drying cocoa, two steps that shape final flavor. This gives them a head start over industrial producers.
Unfortunately, some chocolate farmers employ child labor. Before you settle on a big or craft brand, research whether it avoids cocoa grown using these practices.
Chocolate Bar Production
After growing, fermenting, and drying, chocolate makers take over. From here, cocoa must be roasted, cracked, winnowed, and ground. Finally, it is heated and tempered into its final shape.
Each stage can alter the final product. For example: Roasting, which some of the smallest producers do in home ovens. Industrial chocolate producers tend to, like many big coffee companies, over-roast beans. Artisan chocolate makers roast beans more tenderly, the goal being to draw out unique qualities and nuances.
The Difference in Flavors Tasted
Craft chocolate bars can vary astonishingly. Some may have notes of raspberries, others of hay and honey. One common feature is that they all tend to have a deep, dark intensity that just pales the industrial product. On the other hand, large-scale chocolate tastes like, well, chocolate—the kind of chocolate we've tasted since childhood. It brings smoothness, sameness, and a down-the-middle flavor hard to describe, other than as chocolatey.
The craft stuff shows more character and variety. Single-origin and single-estate bars even have terroir, the taste of place. Just as with grapes for wine, cocoa absorbs subtleties of the sun, soil, and air where it's grown. It can even gain more of place through the fermentation and drying processes. Craft artisans seek to draw out place-specific subtleties. The result? A deeper, more flavorful, more interesting bar.
So... Which to Buy?
Chocolate should curl your lips into a smile, better your day, make you happy. Eat around. See what you like. If you prefer the $1 bar, stick with that. But what you like might very well be a craft chocolate shaped by hand, so open your mind and try a few.